Traveling with Electronics : Drum Machines : The Early Years 

the play of patterned frequencies

across the matrix of time




Between 1930 and 1932 Leon Theremin created the Rhythmicon for composer Henry Cowell. It could produce sixteen different rhythms, based on the overtone series, each associated with a particular pitch. The rhythms could each be played individually or together in any combination.....the math of harmonics in a box.  

Thirty years later the next generation of rhythm machines played pre-programmed dance rhythms - one two cha cha cha.....and that is where our journey begins. 

The first rhythm machine I ever encountered 

(drum buttons above upper keyboard)  

was on the Kimball "swinger" organ in 1967

I found out that you could push 3 of the buttons at the same time and if you pushed waltz + samba + bassa nova, you got 2 against 3.....I was hooked!        

Be it samples or analog - I love the drum machines


The Maestro Rhythm King made it big in 1971

on Sly Stone's classic "There's a Riot Goin On" 

In 1973 Sly used what he called "the funk box" again, on one of the all time greatest funk songs ever created, IN TIME from the "Fresh" Album. As much as we associate the 1980's with the dawn of the age of the drum machines, Sly and the Family Stone were layin it down all the way back in the early 1970's. Dig how the "real" drummer plays off and against the drum machine - Sly was so far ahead of the musical curve!


Programable Beats - let the games begin 

1978 Roland CR-78

While it still had the pre-programed cha cha rhythms - the CR-78 was a breakthrough and the first real DRUM MACHINE  because of the section (just above the 4 yellow buttons) that allowed you to program your own beats into 4 memory slots.

INDOOR LIFE, the art/punk band I played electric trombone with, used the CR-78 on our first album - check it out on Archeology. Roland's analog drum machines really set the tone for the darker art/punk and new wave happening in the early 1980's. 


1980 Roland TR-808 ($1,200.00)

The Icon of the Drum Machine Culture - the TR-808 and it's sounds have been used on more recordings than any other drum machine.....Marvin Gaye used it on his mega hit "Sexual Healing". 


1980 Linn LM-1 ($5,000.00)  

The first drum machine to use samples of real drums - 8 Bit 28K - (apparently Roger Linn only produced about 500 of the LM-1).....Prince used it on his breakout album "1999".


1980 Boss DR-55

Roland started the BOSS line of "DR. Rhythm" drum machines with the DR-55 and it was devoured by the DIY culture because of it's very low price.


1981 Roland TR-606

The TR-606 drumatix and the companion TB-303 bass line were also, both relatively inexpensive and could be synced together to create a rhythm section in a box. The 303 went on to become very popular in Acid House Music.


1981 Oberheim DMX

While Roland had pretty much dominated the analog drum machine market and the Linn's $5,000.00 price tag kept it pretty much out of reach for most musicians, the back to back introduction of the Oberheim DMX and the LinnDrum LM-2, with their fat sounding 8 Bit samples of real drums, completely changed the sound-scape of popular music from New Wave, Rock, Pop and Soul to Funk, Rap, Hip Hop and even Film Scoring. Both of these machines sold for just under $3,000.00 and they were heard everywhere all throughout the 1980's.

The DMX, LinnDrum and 808, had a huge effect on the recording industry. 

1982 LinnDrum LM-2


1983 EMU Drumulator

EMU Systems broke the $1,000.00 mark for a sample based drum machine with the Drumulator and Dave Smith at Sequential Circuits followed with Drumtracks. 

1984 Sequential Circuits Drumtracks


1984 Roland TR-707

Not to be left alone in the analog world, Roland introduced their version of a sample based drum machine - with 12 Bit samples. The TR-707 and the TR-727 (which was a Latin Percussion based machine), as well as the TR-505, which was a stripped down less expensive unit with sounds from both the 707 and 727. Sample based drum machines were taking the lead in popular music.

This caused the price of the TR-909 (the analog/digital replacement for the 808), to drop and the 909 started to find it's way into the emerging House and Techno scenes, because of the more aggressive "thump" that it could produce in the low frequency range at high volumes.....Hello Molly.

1984 Roland TR-909  


1985 Sequential TOM

Sequential Circuits shortened their name to "Sequential" changed the look of the gear and introduced TOM to replace Drumtracks. This was a very rough period for the company and they wouldn't make it into the 1990's


1985 Yamaha RX-11

 By the mid 1980's even Yamaha, Korg and Casio had joined the under $1,000 beat-box party with the RX-11, the DDD-1 and the RZ-1 but none of them ever gained the popularity of Roland, Linn or Oberheim.

1986 Korg DDD-1

The Casio actually had the ability to record user sounds, but without the ability to edit them, so "start" timing was a big issue and rendered the sampling ability useless.

1986 Casio RZ-1 


1987 Alesis HR-16

Alesis really raised the bar for both sound and flexibility with the HR-16 (my favorite drum machine of all time). It had very high clock resolution and was the first drum machine to use 16 Bit samples. Nothing else had the "playability" of the HR-16.

With quantize off it had a resolution of 1/384th note - so if you turned the metronome off and set a pattern for 60 bars in 1/4 time with a BPM of 60, you essentially had a "real time" drum recorder. All you had to do was play.

During this period, I was using a 505, a 606 and the HR-16 (un-synced) in my live performance rig. Check it out on The Conversation from the album "These Times" in a free-improvisation context. The trio is me on drum machines and electric trombone with Bill Frisell and Terry Rolleri on electric guitars - recorded live at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, 1988.


The Next (r)Evolution - user sampling

1987 EMU SP-1200

EMU Systems introduced the first drum machine that allowed you to record your own 12 Bit 27.5K samples, the SP-1200 - which came after the very short lived SP-12.

The SP-1200 along with Roger Linn's collaboration with Akai the following year, the MPC-60, ushered in the 1990's and the era of MPC style "sampling drum machines" - which also introduced the term "Beat Production" - along with a whole bunch of lawsuits for copyright infringement - which introduced the reality of "Sample Clearing" throughout the film and recording industry . 

1988 Akai MPC-60


>>>>>Fast Forward to 2015 and you can have access to just about all of the drum machines listed above, plus many more in the very cool and very inexpensive iPad app FUNKBOX.....and the beat goes on!



The timing of this is crazy, but there are a number of new releases and first time download releases from the archives that have just come out from three different sites. You can listen to any of them by clicking the (blue) title under the cover image. I hope you enjoy the music.


***New Releases from 1K Recordings


SHAPESHIFTERS                                    SMALL MAGIC


***New Releases from High Mayhem 





TAIJI POLE                                               ZEN NOIR


***New Release from Downloads Now 


HIPSAMPLE                                             WITHOUT DESIRES

Now for a limited time download HIPSAMPLE and get WITHOUT DESIRES FREE 

just forward Paypal receipt for download purchase to support@downloadsnow.net

Type "WITHOUT DESIRES" in the email and it will be sent to you within 48 hours.



I just got back from doing a Conduction Workshop & Concert in Austin Texas to open the Liminal Sound Series with an eight piece ensemble that was just killing it! 

Janie Cowan - string bass, Corinne Zappler - viola, Chris Vestre - guitar, Jonathan Horn - guitar, Kullen Fuchs - trumpet/french horn, Alex Heitlinger - trombone, Michael St Clair - trombone, Bob Hoffnar - pedalsteel guitar.....I'll post audio soon.  

In case you missed this interview with Michael Ross from GUITAR MODERNE, about Conduction and my Electric Guitar Choir - ZEN NOIR - here is the video.

until next month then.....safe travels.....dino